York Minster Cathedral

York Minster Audio Guide

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York Minster Quick Facts

  • York Minster is a much less cumbersome name as it is more accurately called Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York.
  • York Minster is the largest gothic cathedral in Europe and dates back to 1220. However, parts of the cathedral were constructed as time progressed until 1472.
  • The cathedral has around 128 stained glass windows, and they tend to have names such as the Great East Window, Five Sisters Window, Rose Window etc.
  • It is a Minster because it was constructed in Anglo-Saxon times. It is a cathedral because it contains the seat of an Arch Bishop.

Where is York Minster?

The whereabouts of York Minster is not a question that comes up often because it can be seen from miles around. In fact, a local bylaw states that no other construction is to be built taller than the Minster. York Minster is a landmark that can be observed tens of miles away because of its height and how it is situated in the Vale of York, a large expanse of flat land.

More About York Minster

York Minster, the enormous cathedral officially speaking is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York. However, it is more common to hear it referred to as York Minister. It is the largest of its kind (Gothic) in Europe and is the seat of the Archbishop of York being the second-highest office of the Church of England. Minsters are from the Anglo-Saxon period and are missionary teaching churches (hence the red coloured Minster School at the east side of the Minster). The present building took 252 years to build from 1220 to 1472.  In any case, the structure dominates the skyline and a local law forbids building higher than the Minster.

It is recommended by todoinyork.com to walk around the full external structure of the building before entering. This will give you a clear view of its external dimensions but also will allow you the opportunity to see some of the other related structures around it such as St William’s College.

York Minster’s Gothic Nave

When you enter York Minster, you will receive an enormous sense of space in its enormous gothic nave that took around 60 years to build. It is 80 metres in length by 60 metres width as well as 29 metres in height. (262ft x 196ft x 95ft approx).

You will notice, looking up, a series of statues around the nave. However, some are missing their heads because of the reformation during the 16th century.

The creamy white stone you will notice is magnesium limestone that derived from nearby Tadcaster. Obviously, it consists of an enormous amount of stone considering the dimensions of the Minster, 524.5ft by 275ft in height at the central tower.

York Minster has three main towers, one of which contains a large 10t bell known as Great Peter that chimes the hour.
York Minster has three main towers, one of which contains a large 10t bell known as Great Peter that chimes the hour. Try standing next to the West Tower at 12 noon to hear the bell loud and very clear.

Minster and Cathedral 

York Minster is both a Minster and a Cathedral. The word “minster” derives from the latin word “monastarian” and the local monks would go out to teach or minister.  The reason why it is also a cathedral is because it has the throne of a Bishop.  It derives again from latin “cathedra” and literally means seat, of which in York is the seat of an Arch Bishop.

The Minster’s History 

The minister is managed as it were, by a Dean and a Chapter.  However, the term minster is used when a church is established in Anglo-Saxon times.  Some well known features of the minster is its Rose Window and Chapter House that you find at the rear of the minister.  It also has a wide decorated gothic nave that contains of a west window that was constructed in 1338.  It is the largest expanse of stained glass in the world.  The five sisters window is located in the north transept that is 52ft high.

York has had a Christian presence since the 4th century but it is believed that it could be earlier due to missionaries sent from Rome. However, the first church on the site was a simple wooden construction built in 627 to baptise the King of Northumbria.  Then a more substantial building was constructed that fell into disrepair.  In 741 it was destroyed in a fire and another more impressive structure was constructed until it was damaged in 1069 by William the Conqueror. It was destroyed completely by the Danes and rebuilt yet again in 1080.

Gothic style cathedrals came about in the mid 12th century and it was not until 1215 that after Walter de Gary ordered the construction of a cathedral after he was made Arch Bishop. The Chapter House was not built until the 1260’s.  The wide nave was constructed in the 1280’s so the minster was constructed progressively over a period of time. 

The octagonal Chapter House was added in 1260. If you enter into Dean's Garden and walk beside the Minster you will discover it at the rear of the structure. There is an even better view from inside and pay particular attention to the ceiling.
The octagonal Chapter House was added in 1260. If you enter into Dean’s Garden and walk beside the Minster you will discover it at the rear of the structure. There is an even better view from inside and pay particular attention to the ceiling.

Close to the south transept you will notice a statue of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine who in AD306 was the proclaimed emperor in York.  Philip Jackson was the sculpture of the statue along with the sword that was unimaginably stolen in 2016.  It now appears in many guide books since it was commissioned in 1998.

Constantine Statue York Minster
Constantine Statue York Minster

York Minster’s Windows

There are 128 stained glass windows at York Minster with over 2 million items of glass within them. Much of the items of stained glass came from Germany, some dating back to the 12th century. However, the glass was fired, painted and glazed in York, including he lead strips.

Between 1338 and 1339 the Great East Window was constructed known as the heart of Yorkshire. You will see this at the rear of the Minster. It relates the purpose of the church as well as its authority. Interestingly, the installation of this window cost £67! The Great East Window is around 76ft in height and created by John Thornton. It is currently the largest expanse of stained glass in the world. It has been carefully conserved since 2008 by repainting and re-leading each pain of glass.

The Rose Window is famous to most people familiar with the Minster. It was constructed around 1500 and commemorates the union between the people of York and Lancaster. In July 1984, a fire broke out in the south transept by a lightening strike or thunderbolt during a thunder storm. The fire destroyed much of the roof in the south transept and £2.5 was spent in repairs. Firefighters sourced water from the nearby River Ouse to prevent the fire spreading to the Rose Window. When the roof collapsed during the fire, some of the firefighters were on the roof at the time. In 1988 the repairs were completed, just 4 years after the fire.

The Five Sisters Window is around 50ft high and found on the northern side of the Minster. You can see this from Dean Park to the left of the front of the Minster. If you look carefully, you will notice a slight difference in the glazing used owing to the different eras the stained glass was installed.

Another interesting fact about the stained glass windows at York Minster is that in both world wars, the glass was removed to protect them, and yes, this includes each piece of stained glass.

York Minster’s Towers

The two west towers stood side by side contain bells, both clock chimes and concert carillon. There are 56 bells in total and the left tower contains the giant 10.8 ton Great Peter which heralds the hour across the city of York. The 6 clock bells weigh to around 3 tons. The opposite tower contains 14 hung and rung bells again weighing 3 tons for change ringing. In addition to these are 22 carillon bells weighing 1.2 tons that are played from a keyboard. You’ll notice that Great Peter will chime hourly whereas the clock bells chime every quarter hour.

The front towers (west) differ from the central tower because they are elaborately decorated with battlements and 8 pinnacles on each. The central tower was built between 1407-1472 in perpendicular form.

The central tower was to have a spire. However, this design was abolished because the central tower would have collapsed under the weight of the spire.  If it had been erected, it would have added another 100ft to the top. 

York Minster’s Organ

The fire of 1829 sadly destroyed York Minster’s original organ and today’s current organ dates back to 1832 produced by Elliot and Hill. The organ was reconstructed in 1859 by William Hill and Sons. The casing and pipes remained the same but the internal mechanics were upgraded and completely new. Again in 1903, Walker and Sons built a new instrument within the original casing but retaining several existing registers in the instrument. In 1918 at the end of the Great War, it had the tuba mirabilis added and had its great chorus revised by Harrison and Harrison.

You will also notice the choir screen dating back from the 15th century that contains sculptures of the kings of England that include William the Conqueror and Henry VI.

The Chapter House

The Chapter House is an octagonal structure situated on the north side of the Minster. This structure was attached after the main transepts were completed. The Chapter House demonstrates the early decorated period using geometric patterns. You will notice how the window cover much of the walls filling structure with daylight. The Chapter House contains some of the finest gothic sculptures in the country in the form of human heads of which are all unique. Also unique is the marble forming the piers. When inside the Chapter House, make sure you take a look at the decorative ceiling.

The Undercroft

Another fascinating part of York Minster is in the completely opposite direction to the perpendicular towers above. York Minster is the only cathedral with an accredited museum which is found in the undercroft that began back in 2013. The museum spans 2000 years of history beginning in Roman times to present day. Within the Undercroft is the remains of a Roman Barracks. Remember that the location of the Minster was the site of the Roman headquarters long before the Minster was constructed. It also reveals York’s Viking connections with the ‘Horn of Ulf”. On a more religious theme, you see some of the incased old York Gospels.

The Undercroft has a very extensive collection of monuments, silver, furnishings, treasures and memorabilia, windows, glass, textiles, wood, stone and archaeology. This collection is still being accumulated on an annual basis.